While the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) may seem right at home strutting around some of the native landscapes of California, this species is actually not native to the state.
The last turkey native to California, Meleagris californica, went extinct during the Pleistocene about 10,000 years ago. The shorter and stockier turkey specie, known as the California turkey, once roamed the areas of now Santa Barbara County down through to Orange County. Drought and overhunting by humans in the area are thought to be the cause of the extinction of this species of turkey.
A brief history of introducing wild turkeys to California
The turkeys seen today in California are an introduced species. In 1877, the first recorded release of wild turkeys into California from Mexico was documented when the birds were introduced to Santa Cruz Island by private ranchers.
As part of a hunting program, the California Fish and Game Commission (F&GC) introduced farm-raised wild turkeys to California during the first half of the 20th century.
The first introduction by the F&GC occurred in 1908 with the release of 22 turkeys from Mexico to the San Bernardino Mountains. That year, turkeys were also released into lower Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and Tulare County. By 1918, the initial stock of turkeys was wiped out, in part due to blackhead disease.
In 1928, the F&GC attempted another effort at stocking wild turkeys in California, this time with birds bred in captivity from Arizona. 3,350 game farm turkeys were released in 23 counties throughout the state but the program was eventually unsuccessful at establishing a viable wild turkey population.
These populations of wild turkey didn’t fare well out in the wild, having been raised to depend on humans for food and shelter and the program was shuttered in 1951.
It wasn’t until the California Fish and Game Commission started to populate areas of California with wild-caught turkeys from Texas in 1959 that the introduced species started to gain a foothill in the state.
The commission started with sixty-two Texas birds that were released in San Diego County. This subspecies, the Rio Grande turkey (M. g. intermedia), has been widely introduced throughout the western United States and makes up most of the population of wild turkeys in California.
Today, wild turkeys are established in about 29,000 square miles in California according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. This represents 18.5% of the total area of California. 2004 estimations of the total wild turkey population in California was 242,000.
These highly adaptable birds can be found in natural areas like the mixed temperate forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains to urban areas like neighborhoods in Sacramento.
According to the California Department of Fish and Game wild turkeys have established a range in:
- lower elevation oak woodlands of the Sierra Nevada foothills and Coast Ranges, including the central coast
- north coast through Mendocino County
- south coast in San Diego County
- the foothills of the Klamath and Cascade mountain ranges of northern California.
Wild turkeys have a generalist feeding behavior that allows them to adapt to the most available food items in the local environment. In California, researchers who studied wild turkey food habits found that wild oats (Avena barbata), annual grasses, and acorns were some of the common food making up the turkey’s annual diet.
Concern about the impact of wild turkeys
The now widespread reach of wild turkeys has led to concerns about the potential impact of these generalists on native species and ecosystems although research is needed to establish whether or not there actually is an impact.
Depredation, the destruction of crops by wild turkeys, is also a concern in the agricultural industry. Wine grape growers, in particular have complained about the wild turkeys stripping, pecking, and plucking grapes from their vineyards.
Bocheński, Z. M., & Campbell, K. E. (2006). The extinct California Turkey, Meleagris Californica, from Rancho La Brea: Comparative osteology and systematics. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Burger, G. V. (1954). Wild turkeys in central coastal California. The Condor, 56(4), 198-206. https://doi.org/10.2307/1365114
Coates, R. W., Delwiche, M. J., Gorenzel, W. P., & Salmon, T. P. (2010). Evaluation of damage by vertebrate pests in California vineyards and control of wild turkeys by bioacoustics. Human-Wildlife Interactions, 4(1), 130-144. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24864511
Decker, J. (2004). Strategic Plan for Wild Turkey Management. CDFW Wildlife Branch Webpage. California Department of Fish and Wildlife; 4/21/2014. [Cited 2022 July 3]. Available from: https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=83157
Starin, D. (2016, March 8). California’s Wild Turkey Troubles. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/california-s-wild-turkey-troubles/